Unbeaten Nebraska wrestler Craig Brester spent his summers in high school baling hay, feeding cattle and doing any other chore that needed to be done on his family's farm.

He didn't have the time or money to travel the summer circuit like most of the other elite wrestlers he would eventually face in college.

It cost him experience and, maybe as important, exposure. But those hot summer days Brester spent in the sun honed a work ethic that is paying off for him now.

"Maybe it's made me hungrier, not doing the whole summer wrestling thing in high school," Brester said Thursday. "Maybe it gave me a chance to peak in college."

Brester, a senior 197-pounder, will take a 17-0 record and a No. 2 rating into this weekend's prestigious National Duals in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

He's been dominant, recording nine pins, one technical fall and one major decision. Last week he pinned an opponent in 41 seconds.

Now he's bidding to become the first wrestler to arrive at Nebraska as a walk-on and leave as a national champion.

Brester came close to doing it last year, losing a 2-1 decision on riding time to Iowa State's Jake Varner in the NCAA finals.

"It was fueling Craig all summer and fall," Nebraska coach Mark Manning said. "He's definitely an underdog in the eyes of all the people in wrestling."

Varner is worldly compared with Brester, who grew up near the small northeast Nebraska town of Howells.

Varner was brought up to be a dominant junior wrestler in California. He was the nation's No. 1 high school recruit in 2005. He made the U.S. team for the world championships last fall. He remains the No. 1-ranked 197-pounder in Division I.

Brester was an all-state football player for Howells High, splitting his time between that, wrestling and farming. He won state wrestling titles as a freshman and senior in Nebraska's smallest high school division.

A handful of Division II schools expressed interest in him and offered to give him a partial scholarship. But Brester wanted to follow the path of Howells' famous native son, Brad Vering, a two-time Olympic wrestler and 2000 national champion for Nebraska.

"Coming down here as a little kid, watching him and seeing all the success he had, I wanted to try to accomplish the same things," Brester said.

There was, however, no scholarship waiting for him in Lincoln.

"He never proved himself nationally, and he didn't dominate the state," Manning said, recalling his initial assessment of Brester. "He was very raw when he got here, greener than Kentucky pastures."

Brester finally earned a scholarship going into his junior year, and now he finds himself four wins short of becoming the 17th wrestler in Nebraska history to post 100 career victories.

Manning said Brester has become a much more refined wrestler, yet still very much a no-nonsense country boy.

"There's not much fancy about him," said Lee Schroeder, Brester's wrestling coach at Howells. "Just take 'em down and beat on 'em. That's what he does."

Brester has followed that strategy the first half of this season. It's his final season _ he isn't sure if he wants to pursue international wrestling _ so he vows to leave no doubt who is best when he walks onto the mat.

Every match, Brester visualizes that he's wrestling Varner, who he'll go against at least twice before an anticipated 2009 national finals rematch at the NCAA championships in Omaha in March.

"If I hold back, it could become habit," Brester said. "I want to wrestle the best I can each match and get better because I know Varner is getting better every time he wrestles.

"This is my last time going through this. I'm putting everything into it I can."